Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Book Review - Bonhoeffer

A new feature here. I write book reviews for our local paper. I will copy or link to them here. The following review is of a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer – Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas Thomas Nelson 591 pages $36.99

Throughout this new biography by Eric Metaxas, Dietrich Bonhoeffer shines through as a real, multi-faceted, inspiring human being. The thought process that brought him to make controversial decisions during the Second World War – to act as an agent of the Nazis in order to bring down the government, and to participate in a plot to kill Hitler and his accomplices – is explained in all its complexity. The material Metaxas selects from letters, diaries and conversations builds a portrait of an engaging and exemplary theologian, pastor and fully-rounded human being. At the same time, this is a hard book to review because of its flaws.

Metaxas is clearly not an impartial biographer. He notes in the Acknowledgments at the end of the book that Bonhoeffer’s writing was introduced to him soon after his 1988 conversion and was very meaningful to him as a descendant of Germans who had suffered during the Nazi regime. At times, this book read as hagiography – the life of a saint. I struggled with this because Bonhoeffer, without question, was indeed an exemplary man of faith; at the same time, though, some of Metaxas’ description of Bonhoeffer seems cloying and the reader is very clearly led by the author in matters of interpretation. While I never felt sympathy for the Nazis, I thought a number of matters had to be more complex, at the moment, than the author with his hindsight sometimes gave credit for. He also assumes to know the mind of Bonhoeffer at times: for instance, Metaxas seems to act as omniscient narrator in the section where Bonhoeffer learns from his well-placed brother-in-law about the atrocities being committed. The author writes: “Future generations would be convinced that nothing good could ever have existed in a country that produced such evil. They would think only of these evils. It would be as if these unleashed dark forces had grotesquely marched like devils on dead horses backward through the gash in the present and had destroyed the German past too.” While the crimes of the Nazis cannot be overstated, I’m not sure this is Germany’s legacy and I wondered at this hyperbole.

Other aspects of the writing are also curious. The language blends folksy casualness with academic theological language. The best example of this occurs when Metaxas describes a sermon on the book of Jeremiah as an “unrelenting homiletic bummer.” (p. 209) Are the people who understand and use the term homilectic likely to describe something as a bummer? I doubt it. The book is laid out chronologically and thoughtfully - although there are endless foreshadowings. At the same time, the author sometimes fails to note important events in their chronological place. For instance, Metaxas describes Churchill’s response to Hitler both before and after his election, but fails to note the key 1940 election of the British leader. Another omission occurs around the failure of the resistance to launch a coup in 1940: despite the extensive build-up in this biography, the reasons for the failure to act are dismissed without explanation. Some parts of Bonhoeffer’s life are given detailed moment by moment description, while others are skimmed over. The only place this is explained is at the end of Bonhoeffer’s own life when his correspondence ceased.

There is also inconsistency in Metaxas’ explanations: several times he gives not only translation of German terms but also pronunciation help. Other times, he does not explain key acronyms (such as SS and SA). There are also grievous errors – Bonhoeffer’s brother was a physicist who worked with the best minds in Germany, including, apparently, Alfred Einstein. This error even made it as such in the good index at the end of the book. Many of these errors could have been resolved by a judicious editor

In the Acknowledgements, Metaxas notes his great debt to all previous Bonhoeffer biographers and mostly particularly Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s confidant and biographer. He says of Bethge’s biography that it forms “the great foundation upon which every syllable thenceforth written or spoken about his best friend Dietrich Bonhoeffer gratefully rest.” This prompts the question of why this new biography is necessary.

The strongest part of the book is actually the final section where there is much less historical material to work with. In this section, it struck me that the author had a clear grasp of Bonhoeffer’s theology and had likely found ways to live it out. While I had difficulty with some of the writing in this book, I nonetheless came away inspired by the person of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I suspect, for the author of this biography, that would constitute a successful response to the book.

(Disclosure: Thanks to Graf-Martin Communications for this review copy.)

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